Around 280 miles south west of Moscow the Wehrmacht finally launched their major offensive for 1943. The battlefield was enormous, stretching out for hundreds of miles. Nearly a million German troops faced over twice as many from the Red Army. Nearly 3,000 German panzers faced over 5,000 Soviet tanks – they were placing their faith in the new Tiger heavy tank and Panzer medium tank to outgun the opposition.
Yet the Red Army had had ample warning. They had built extensive defences in depth, successive lines of trenches, minefields and tank traps that extended in depth for dozens of miles in places. Furthermore they had had time to train and prepare their troops. The Germans were facing a completely different army from 1941.
Vasily Krysov was amongst those who had to hold his nerve, and his fire, that day. He commanded a platoon of SU-122 self propelled howitzers. They had arrived in the Kursk area in the middle of June and held positions near Zmievka.
At 0220 on the 5th July they participated in a pre-emptive Soviet bombardment. Then at 0430 the main German artillery barrage began and they added their weight to the counter battery fire. Their main task was to wait for the panzers, which did not make an appearance for a few more hours:
Less than a kilometre now remained to the enemy tanks, but there was still no command from the regiment commander to open fire! The Tiger tank had side and frontal armour ranging from 80mm to 120mm thick, and its powerful gun could penetrate 70mm of annour out to a range of 1,500 metres, whereas even the heavy shell of our 122mm howitzer could penetrate the Tiger‘s armour only out to about S00 metres.
We now could clearly see through the periscope and gunsights as the Tigers advanced, slightly weaving as they prowled through the wheat field, their menacing gun muzzles swinging back and forth as they scanned our positions for targets.
Having ordered the gunlayer to keep one of the tanks, which had come to the fore and was moving towards our vehicle, in his gunsight, I quickly checked the other guys in my crew: Valeriy Korolev was seemingly composed and had his right hand on the gun’s trigger; Plaksin and Emelyan Ivanovich kept their eyes glued to the enemy tanks through their vision slits and were noticeably anxious; the driver-mechanic Vitya Oleinik was agitated, and his hands were idly grabbing and releasing the clutch levers, but at such a tense moment this was natural.
As for me – yes, I was also anxious, although I already had experience in battling German tanks, but those had been light Panzer III and medium Panzer IV tanks, while here at Kursk the Germans had Tigers, Panthers, and Ferdinands with very heavy guns!
In this first unequal engagement with heavy enemy tanks at the Kursk salient I was eager to defeat the enemy at any cost, but also to keep the members of the crews alive! Now, though, as the commander, I had to think about one thing: to ensure that no one let us down in battle!
‘Even the devil is not as terrible as he is painted to be,’ I kept encouraging my crewmen. ‘Let them come closer …’
The distance was shrinking. There were now 900 metres to the tanks 800 .. . The Tigers were closing on our outpost line deployed 700 metres in front of the first trench – but still there was no command to open fire!
The tanks were crawling as slowly as turtles. Their tactics were understandable: they were reckoning that our nerves wouldn’t hold out, that someone would open fire, and then they could easily, from a safe range, make short work of our tanks, self—propelled guns and artillery. Nevertheless, the regiment commander Major Samyko was showing great self-control.
[The Panzers overran the outer line of Soviet trenches and continued before the order to fire was given]
Three red flares soared into the sky to signal confirmation of the order, and before the first one had reached its zenith, Korolev, who was waiting for that signal like it was manna from heaven, pressed the trigger. The shot thundered! Levanov’s and the battery commander’s howitzers roared nearby! Dust and smoke swirled up from the blast wave, concealing the battlefield for several seconds, but nevertheless I made out a flash on the turret of an enemy tank! And then a second flash – a direct hit from the shell fired by Lesha Kuzin – Levanov‘s gunlayer!
To the left, one German tank surged signicantly ahead of the others.
‘Valeriy! At the second from the left! Fire!’ I ordered the gunlayer.
The shell exploded on the upper part of the turret. However, the tank not only kept advancing, but it also continued to fire its main gun and two machine guns. I gave Korolev a new aiming point: ‘At the tracks! Fire!’ The heavy shell smashed a track! The tank swerved to the left, exposing its right side.
Vasiliy Tsybin, the experienced gunlayer on Gorshkov’s crew, who hadn’t fired prior to this, had been waiting for just such an opportunity – in an instant he sent a shell into the side of the enemy tank and set it ablaze! Korolev also managed to fire, but the German tank had already received its fatal hit a second before.
‘A wasted shell!’ Valeriy swore sorrowfully.
Contemporary German newsreel, with subtitles, contains aerial shots that give some idea of the size of the battlefield: